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July 8, 2018

EXISTENTIALIST HORSERADISH: Paul Schrader’s World and “First Reformed”

“Faith is in its essence simply a matter of will…, to believe is to wish to believe, and to believe in God is, before and above all, to wish that there may be a God.” 
~~Miguel de Unamuno, “The Tragic Sense of Life,” 1912

“Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding. For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial ‘doubt.’ This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious ‘faith’ of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion. This false ‘faith’ which is what we often live by and which we even come to confuse with our ‘religion’ is subjected to inexorable questioning…. Hence, is it clear that genuine contemplation is incompatible with complacency and with smug acceptance of prejudiced opinions. It is not mere passive acquiescence in the status quo, as some would like to believe – for this would reduce it to the level of spiritual anesthesia.”
~~Thomas Merton, “New Seeds of Contemplation,” 1962

“And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come…; that thou…shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.” 
~~Revelation 11:18

In Paul Schrader’s 1976 interview included in George Stevens, Jr.’s “The Great Movie Makers: The Next Generation from the 1950s to Hollywood Today,” Schrader says, “One of the great things about being a movie critic [in the 1960s] was that criticism was part of the counterculture movement. …. That’s all gone now, and criticism has … been relegated to … a form of consumer guidance.”

The 1960s counterculture movement. A movement that rested on moral imperative. Is there any such overarching moral commitment today more than 50 years hence? No matter our political or sociological orientation, we all seem immersed in a monoculture, a monoculture of self-serving, self-righteous indignation with little sense of the common weal, a monoculture willing to sacrifice earthly, let alone spiritual, salvation for short-term gain — or just mindless escape.

“First Reformed” is writer/director Schrader’s fearless new film in which Schrader’s directorial authority and Ethan Hawke’s bold performance prove both artists are, in their collaboration, fundamentally confronting our times. “First Reformed” is the film of our moment. 

The relationship of “First Reformed" to “Taxi Driver,” Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film for which Schrader wrote the screenplay, has been much discussed and is, indeed, incontrovertible. "First Reformed" is a continuation of that narrative. The insomniac taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a 26-year-old Vietnam vet who feels mired in the sordid mean streets of New York City. The Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke) of “First Reformed” is a 46-year-old Calvinist minister who has lost his only child, a son, and is mired in an existentialist crisis of faith — a personal guilt that accrues over the course of the film into a sense of collective guilt for the rape of the planet.

Yet the comparison is limiting. First, as Schrader himself pointed out in an interview with Terry Gross for “Fresh Air,” “…Travis being a juvenile…is experiencing loneliness in a very narcissistic way, whereas Reverend Toller, as an older man, is feeling [loneliness] in an existential way. And so the expression [in each film] is different.” Schrader said in 1976, “[Travis] has very few convictions about anything except immorality. …. [H]e doesn’t have any real beliefs or strong theories….” By contrast, the Rev. Toller does nothing if not wrestle with belief. The comparison also fails to acknowledge the debt of “First Reformed” to Schrader’s screen adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1955 novel for Scorsese’s 1988 “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Second, “First Reformed,” a magnum opus in the context of Schrader’s oeuvre, posits on some levels a rejection of the Calvinist Reformed tradition central to Schrader’s background, so it is important to understand the core Calvinist doctrines of predestination and election: i.e., though human beings have free agency to act in sin or in virtue, and have the capacity for goodness, they are, in Reformed theology, in bondage to sin. From eternity, God has chosen (elected) those sinners to whom he will grant mercy, and we cannot know the mind of God. This concept, that one cannot know the mind of God, becomes a leitmotif throughout “First Reformed,” an existentialist challenge for Toller and a toss-off excuse for everyone else, a way to shrug off responsibility for the most profound questions facing our present environmental crisis.

Schrader first explores Calvinist theology in “Hardcore” (1979), the five points of Calvinism being: 1) “total depravity” as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin; 2) “unconditional election”; 3) “limited atonement,” in that atonement is intended for some, yet not all; 4) “irresistible grace,” an inward call which, when directed toward the elect, cannot be denied; and 5) “perseverance of the saints,” that those whom God elects will continue in faith into eternity. In later films, Schrader will confront this theology through a process that will upend Calvinism for, I contend, a position of philosophical existentialism. In an interview with Randall Colburn of, Schrader says, “…I left Calvin in the way a bullet leaves a gun, because if you don’t leave with that much force, it’s going to bring you right back.” Yet eventually, “the circle is completed.”

Schrader’s influences for "First Reformed" are deep. He tells Colburn, “[Y]ou have the character from [Robert Bresson’s 1951] ‘Diary of a Country Priest,’ and you have a premise from [Ingmar Bergman’s 1963] ‘Winter Light,’ you have the [Andrei] Tarkovsky element, you have the [Carl Theodore] Dreyer element, and you have other films that are all involved, and then I didn’t realize I was working out in my head…the enormous way in which ‘Taxi Driver’ was filtering into here, that craziness.”

Schrader, like the iconic director for whom he has written a quartet of films, Martin Scorsese, is concerned with nothing less than salvation from a profoundly existentialist point of view. What is necessary to forge meaning in a conscientious human life? What is the requisite existentialist act we either undertake or renounce with consequences for existential meaning?

In “First Reformed,” Hawke’s Calvinist, the Reverend Ernst Toller, could not be more earnest nor could life have taken a greater toll. He comes from a line of military chaplains who have served out of twin commitments to church and country. He wrestles with the reality that he has lost his only son, whom he encouraged to serve in the Iraq war, a war he now believes “had no moral justification.” Subsequently, he has lost his marriage as well as his chaplaincy, and now finds himself shepherding a stagnating congregation of an historic parish that is little more than a tourist attraction now owned by a New Age mega-church, Abundant Life. The youth at Abundant Life make fun of First Reformed as the “souvenir shop.”

Like many Schrader protagonists, Toller will narrate his story in voice-over, in this instance, through the words he commits to a journal. Travis Bickle keeps a diary in “Taxi Driver,” as does John LeTour (Willem Dafoe) in “Light Sleeper,” a drug dealer who wants to get out.

Toller, in the crosshairs of twin personal crises, both physical and spiritual, has vowed to keep the journal for a year’s time, then destroy it. The journal “is a form of prayer,” he writes, a way to speak to a God from whom his crisis of faith has walled him off. Toller feels a deep affinity to Thomas Merton, the Catalan Trappist monk and author, and keeps one of Merton’s books at his bedside.

When Mary (Amanda Seyfried), whose husband is a reluctant member of Toller’s mere handful of parishioners, approaches Toller regarding concerns about her husband Michael’s (Philip Ettinger) estrangement, Toller’s initial response is to refer her to Abundant Life with its team of counselors, but she counters, “He feels it’s more a company than a church.”

Mary is pregnant, and Michael is an eco-warrior who believes it would be wrong to bring a child into the world of 2017, when most scientists long ago agreed global collapse will reach its apotheosis around 2050. Michael bemoans the fact that scientists warned us that significant action would have to be undertaken by 2015. “I thought things could change,” he laments. “I thought people would listen.” Michael confronts Toller: “How do you sanction bringing a little girl into the world, a child full of hopes and naive ideas, who grows up to be a young woman, who looks you in the eyes and asks, ‘How did you let this happen?’ ”

Toller answers, we must hold hope and despair in our minds simultaneously. “Courage,” says Toller, “is the answer to despair, not reason.” Michael persists, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” Toller, the Calvinist, continues, “We can’t know the mind of God.” This is the excuse everyone else will use in “First Reformed.” Only Toller imposes the existentialist qualification: “But we can choose a righteous life.” We can choose righteousness over selfishness and destruction, and if we cannot know the mind of God, we can at least ask for forgiveness and grace.

The preeminent existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, like other atheistic existentialists, did not affirm God’s existence. Yet Sartre posits that even if God were to exist, his existence would not change the fact that mankind is free and has a human responsibility to choose. The responsibility is not God’s, it is man’s, and this fact places us in a condition of anguish. Later in “First Reformed,” Toller will write, “Discernment intersects with the Christian life at every moment.” Discernment is a word that implies both the necessity of choice and responsibility — the cornerstones of the existentialist position.

Toller’s personal crisis of faith converges with his sincere concern for his flock. What is he — what are we — to do in the face of a ruination of which we are knowingly the cause? The question Michael has posed to Toller, “Will God forgive us?” ultimately becomes Toller’s.

The conversation takes place in a study of sorts adjacent to Mary and Michael’s living room. On the right side of the couch in the living room sits a prop one must bow to the set dressers for finding or to Schrader for inventing: a 1960s/‘70s-esque floor lamp, the lighting source of which is shaped as the one-dollar bill’s Eye of Providence, the all-seeing eye of God. (Michael was granted compassionate release from Fort Providence in Canada, because of Mary’s pregnancy, where he was serving for eco-protests.) The lamp also brings to mind the giant, disembodied eyes of T. J. Eckleburg’s billboard in the valley of ashes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” which look down on the novel’s characters’ moral failures and represent America’s loss of spiritual values. How quaint that sounds today.

Toller’s benefactor and kindly nemesis is Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer), pastor of Abundant Life Church — which owns the historic First Reformed — who has reached out to provide Toller with employment out of pity. Names matter in this film and one cannot help but sense the affinity between Joel Jeffers and the ideology of a Joel Osteen-like prosperity ministry. Substitute “abundance” for “prosperity.” And yet, Jeffers seems to harbor genuine concern for Toller and counsels, “Even a pastor needs a pastor.”

At Jeffer’s suggestion, Toller attends a youth support group where a young woman takes her turn: “No one loves the Lord more than my father.” Her father has lost his job and has been unable to find another. She wants to know how this can be in the eyes of the Lord. When Toller tries to explain that Christ’s teachings make no correlation between godliness and prosperity, he is met with a young man’s offense at political correctness. “So Christians shouldn’t succeed. Christianity is for losers,” the young man angrily shoots back, along with a list of other grievances, including Muslim xenophobia.

To soothe Toller’s frustration about the young people, Jeffers commiserates: “They’re just frightened. They want certainty.” They are facing global warming, economic threats; they live in isolation, communicating on social media; they are fearful for their future." Jeffers goes on that as such, they will turn to a closed, even jihadist, mindset as a mode of self-preservation. “All we can do is guide by example.” To Toller’s ears, this is a guileless observation, as it is to Schrader.

In Colburn’s interview Schrader says, “When I was growing up on the west side of Grand Rapids [Michigan], I think we had six or seven churches. Now we have two, and then there’s Hillsong. One of the churches that I grew up going to now has lyrics on a flat screen, and it’s an evolution. It’s really become an entertainment-based religion, and I have a problem with that, because seeing a whole mass of people repeating the same actions, to me, is not that different from a football game or a political rally. It’s not about that quiet place where the holy resides; it’s about that buzz we get from being in a group and group logic and group think, which of course can be very dangerous.” Schrader makes the important distinction: the holy is meditative, not performative.

In his 1962 “An Introduction to Existentialism,” Robert G. Olson explains [emphasis mine]:
“The ordinary man believes he is most free when he is not obliged to choose or when circumstances clearly dictate which choice is best. The existentialist believes that man is most free when he recognizes he is obliged to choose. The ordinary man says that freedom is valuable because it leads to happiness, security, contentment. The existentialist says that freedom is valuable because through it man may realize his own dignity, and triumph over the unhappiness to which he is irrevocably condemned. The ordinary man tries to ignore the unpleasant facts of life, and if he is exposed to an ‘impossible situation’ where no choice would conceivably be a choice of happiness, he is without recourse. The existentialist refuses to ignore the unpleasant facts of life, and spends most [of his] time trying to find some technique by which to triumph over them.”

Schrader makes a number of fascinating directorial choices in “First Reformed.” One involves the cinematography (Alexander Dynan). The film is structured almost entirely with stationary shots. Movement is achieved through actors moving in and out of shots and through editing. The exceptions are few — the long opening shot as the camera dollies toward the church, the short dolly to the right at a crucial point in front of Mary and Michael’s house, and a zoom on Toller's glass of whiskey and Pepto-Bismol. (We’ve seen this concoction before, poured by detectives in noir films where it carries a wee bit of levity. Here it is dead serious.)

There are, in addition, a minimum of dolly shots: the bare boughs of trees as Mary and Toller bicycle through a park; the levitation scene; the daytime and nighttime streetscapes to and from the factory owned by the Koch-like industrialist Edward Balq (Michael Gaston) — should we balk at his corporate power? — whose largesse, ironically, has kept First Reformed from becoming a parking lot; and the final scene. Even these lyrical moments give the impression that the camera sits still as what it is positioned to record moves by, as if ordained.

Another is the structure of the score, which initially seems will consist exclusively of the hymns performed by the Abundant Life choristers (hymns which naive words betray their beauty), until, well into the film, Lustmord’s synthesizer, with its dark ambient vibrations, starts to seep in as a reflection of the maelstrom building in Toller’s psyche.

Additionally, the geography of the bare little parsonage where Toller lives is more central to the narrative than the church structure itself. Its main or living room is used only twice in the film, for the levitation scene and the final sequence — in both instances, for spiritual, one might even say, transcendent moments.

After “First Reformed” begins with, as noted above, Toller’s voice-over diary, which is intercut with one of Toller’s soliloquist sermons, the first words of actual dialogue in the first full scene of the film involve First Reformed’s Elder (Bill Hoag) asking Toller about a leak in one of the church’s toilets. As in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” the fact of the flesh is crucial. Just as the plumbing at First Reformed is failing, so we will discover Toller’s mortal plumbing is breaking down as well.

Toller’s contemplative (and drinking) processes take place in the sparse bedroom, situated between the kitchen and the toilet. The number of scenes that take place in the toilet is striking. With its peeling plaster and single stark light, the room speaks to Toller’s somatic being. Toller wrestles with soul in the bedroom; he wrestles with viscera in the toilet — and, by extension, mortality, literally with his blood and guts. He pisses blood; plunges the clogged plumbing; vomits into the bowl; and only a few scenes on, looks into a mirror reflection of his bleeding gums. The toilet is the metaphor, not only for Toller’s clogged corporeal body, but for his clogged spirituality.

Finally, from a dramatic point of view, Schrader establishes something of a counterpoise between Toller’s scenes of spiritual crisis and scenes of banal everydayness. Whether it be the logistics of seating plans for First Reformed’s 250th reconsecration celebration, the guided tours of the historic church, the repair of the historic organ — in the interspersed scenes of day-to-day-ness, Toller is at his most awkward. He is a misfit in what we call the “real” world.

Circling back to the levitation scene that takes place in the living room of the parsonage, about which some critics have complained, it is reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s 2011 cosmic sequence in “The Tree of Life.” In Schrader’s abbreviated cinematic language, it begins in similar cosmic grandeur, then devolves into a series of nightmare images of environmental degradation.

Like “The Tree of Life,” “First Reformed” is a visual, aural and narrative masterpiece. And like “The Tree of Life,” “First Reformed” addresses profound questions of the human relationships to human community and to earth. Both are audacious films that speak against the Hollywood status quo, but "First Reformed" moves beyond Malick's romanticism to take up the desperate reality of the general refusal to recognize the threats of climate and geographic disintegration.

The trajectory of the theme of environmental collapse gains momentum as “First Reformed” progresses. Few public figures take on the existential fact, even obliquely, of the Malthusian reality of our impact on the environment. In this monumental cinematic achievement, Schrader has taken on global catastrophe within the context of the true meaning of individual sacrifice and redemption in the Christian context of grace.

Sartre’s pared down, albeit atheistic, existentialist dictum — existence precedes essence — means nothing less than that the actions one takes, moment by moment, create meaning in the face of a meaningless, indifferent universe. Man is condemned to freedom; freedom demands choice; and choice demands responsibility for the creation of existentialist meaning.

Before viewing “First Reformed,” I tried to view Schrader’s oeuvre. Of the 29 films he has written and directed, or written or directed, I was able to screen 21. I had seen many before, but the intensity of the concentrated experience distilled my encounter with “First Reformed” in ways I otherwise would have missed.

For those familiar with Schrader’s output, his is the manifestation of the desperate struggle of redemption. It is the factory worker screwed by management and the union alike in “Blue Collar” (Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor, and Yaphet Kotto); the self-righteous Calvinist father who unwittingly drives his daughter into prostitution in “Hardcore” (George C. Scott); the gigolo who devotes himself to what he sees as a transcendent challenge in servicing older women in “American Gigolo” (Richard Gere); the commitment to the samurai code in the masterful first screenplay (co-written with his brother Leonard Schrader and Robert Towne) “The Yakuza” (Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura) that emerges again in the amazingly original, experimental achievement that is the biographical exploration of “Mashima: A Life in Four Chapters” (Ken Ogata); a Christ (Willem Dafoe) who persists in persuading Judas (Harvey Keitel) that his betrayal is necessary to the redemption of mankind; the abused son trying to navigate his way through adult life, family, and continued abuse in “Affliction” (Nick Nolte); the holocaust survivor Adam (Jeff Goldblum) of “Adam Resurrected,” based on Yoram Kaniuk’s novel, who, in seeking his own redemption, grants it to his fellow Israeli psychiatric asylum dwellers; the mayor John Pappas (Al Pacino) of “City Hall” and the CIA agent Evan Lake (Nicolas Cage) of “The Dying of the Light,” who try to worm their way out of the rot of political manipulation and corruption.

That, early in Schrader’s career, two such radically different characters as Jake Van Dorn of “Hardcore” and Travis Bickle of “Taxi Driver” take upon themselves an essentially identical quest, to save an adolescent girl from the sex trade, tells us much about the thematic concerns that will occupy Schrader’s work for almost a half century. And then there are Schrader’s characters who succumb to a naive belief that they can trust one axiological system to subvert another in the attempt to find their way out of the sucking quicksand of an unjust world.

A Yiddish saying has it that “For a worm in horseradish, the world is … horseradish.” Schrader’s characters are mired in their worlds. Much as they try to transcend the horseradish, they find themselves deeper in the quagmire. The more they strive for higher ground, a way out, the more entrenched they become, as though caught in a cruel cosmic joke. Wittingly or unwittingly they self-destruct or are destroyed by others. And yet, whatever their final fate, they find, if not salvation, at the very least, benediction.

In a formal existentialist perspective, for both Sartre and Martin Heidegger, no Eden from which we were expelled ever existed, yet the fallen state exists, what Heidegger calls inauthenticity and Sartre calls being-in-the-midst-of-the-word. From this fallen state there is yet a transcendence to which we must aspire. Being-in-the-world is for Sartre to be fully aware of the world. By contrast, being-in-the-midst-of-the-world is the state of fallenness, inauthenticity. To cite Olson again, it is “a state in which the individual constantly obeys commands and prohibitions whose source is unknown and unidentifiable and whose justification he does not bother to inquire into.”

Our goal is to escape from this condition of fallenness — to, at the very least, inquire — to see, if you will, beyond the horseradish. As annoying and self-absorbed as Toller's behavior is (and in Colburn’s interview Schrader says, “…this guy is using his suffering to make himself, in a selfish way, more important”), transcending the horseradish is precisely what Toller is trying to do. He is attempting to engage in the supreme existentialist act of getting beyond the being-in-the-midst-of-the-word — the horseradish — to the requisite being-in-the-world.

The arc of “First Reformed” takes place over the eight weeks leading to the 250th anniversary reconsecration ceremony of the historic First Reformed church. As the ceremony gets underway, with Toller absent, Abundant Life’s Jeffers enlists choir leader Esther (Victoria Hill) to fill the vacuum. (Esther and Toller have consummated a brief affair, but Toller in turn has spurned her as an obstacle to his spiritual path.) The final scene of “First Reformed” moves between Toller and Esther, as Esther sings the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” her coif and her eye glasses conjuring something like an amalgam of the two figures in Grant Wood’s 1930 painting “American Gothic.”

Leaning, leaning,
Safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

The sentiment of the hymn goes against everything in Toller’s conception of Christ’s passion in the garden of Gethsemane. Jeffers has chided Toller for being “always in the garden. Even Jesus went to the mountaintop; he was in the temple, in the marketplace.” Jeffers goes on, “Jesus doesn’t want our suffering. Jesus suffered for us. He wants our commitment and our obedience.”

Toller will have none of it, because the idea that even the son of God could vicariously spare one’s suffering is anathema to Toller’s faith. Olson recapitulates his overview of existentialism and the existentialists' attitude toward death thus: “Even the militant atheist who vigorously denies God fares better at the hands of the Christian existentialists than the ‘serene believer’; for the energy of his despair is more akin to faith than the calm of the man who recites a creed by rote, and he is more honest than the faint who has allowed the energy of his hope to blind him to the tragic contradictions of the human condition. In sum, the Christian existentialist does not regard faith in the afterlife as a comforting illusion born of bad faith, but he does regard as illusory and morally valueless a faith which is not perpetually sharpened and daily recreated in and through despair.”

As noted at the opening of this essay, Schrader began his career in film as a critic. He published “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer” in 1972. It seems synchronous that the Anthology of Film Archives in New York City would screen a revival of Robert Bresson’s 1959 “Pickpocket” this June, about which Richard Brody wrote for "The New Yorker" that Bresson modeled “Pickpocket” on “Crime and Punishment,” and the film “evokes Dostoyevskian emotional extremes: torment and exaltation, nihilistic fury and religious passion. But the movie, above all, affirms the miracle of redemptive love and its price in humility and unconditional surrender.” Brody’s would be an accurate description of “First Reformed.”

Taken together, Schrader’s body of work suggests the path to salvation is fraught. Deliverance does not come to us. It can only be attained through acts of renunciation and sacrifice. Within the First Reformed doctrine, none of us can know who among us are the elect, but we should all act as though we are deserving of God’s mercy. A belief in God is not necessary to this world view. We each carry the burden of responsibility to act as though deserving of forgiveness and grace, whether it be of God, of Gaia, of the Hicks Boson particle, of a doe-eyed cow in the pasture, a homeless man on the street, a young woman with child— in other words, deserving of the mystery.

July 2, 2018

“Nana” and “Hitler versus Picasso and the Others”: Two Timely World War II Documentaries

Two recent documentaries, both directorial feature film debuts, approach the memory of World War II from distinctly different perspectives.

Serena Dykman’s “Nana” is a eulogy, not only for her grandmother, Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant, a survivor of Auschwitz who died when Serena was 11, but for all victims of the Holocaust. “I remember a lot of people attending her funeral,” Dykman recalls. “I remember that she was a very important person, a public person.” And she remembers hearing the vocabulary of her grandmother’s mission – words like “Auschwitz,” “Birkenau,” “ghetto,” “Mengele,” “gas chambers” – “and not understanding them, but knowing they were bad words.”

Claudio Poli’s “Hitler versus Picasso and the Others” (a misleading title about which more later) takes us through the World War II labyrinthine fate of European art, meticulously walking us through events leading up to the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition all the way through post World War II attempts at repatriation. Poli’s film is narrated by Toni Servillo, who starred in Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 Oscar winner “The Great Beauty,” and his narrative monologue is derived almost entirely from primary sources.

Dykman’s “Nana” is an infinitely personal story, yet universally political. A film of three generations of women, the dynamic between Dykman and her mother Alice Michalowski, Maryla’s daughter, does much to propel the arc of the documentary narrative and imbue it with love and hope.

Dykman tells us that as more and more people became aware she was making a documentary about her grandmother, they began to send film footage until, in the end, she had almost 100 hours to mine. From home movies, extended excerpts from archival interviews with Maryla, stills, paper documentation, and extensive contemporary interviews Dykman conducted with Maryla’s many still living erudite friends and colleagues – emerges a documentary that is both a remembrance of her grandmother and a powerful addition to the literature of the Holocaust.

Maryla was born 6 November 1919 in Bedzin, Poland, two miles from the German border, with a population of about 60,000 that was equally Jewish and non-Jewish. It was a non-religious family, as comfortable celebrating Catholic holidays as Jewish ones.

In her late teens, Maryla was an aspiring opera singer who auditioned at the Krakow Opera House, one of three to get a callback. It wasn’t until about this time that anti-Semitism began to seep into the community. What happens in Bedzin in 1939 – and the ensuing events – is a story that, on the one hand, we know all too well, and on the other – perilously – we seem not to know well enough. This is the dilemma at the heart of Dykman’s project: that we not sigh at yet another Holocaust story and instead see that story afresh, through the eyes of a remarkable, intelligent and insightful individual – its tragic impact on the one who lived it and the imperative for the subsequent generational telling through daughter and granddaughter.

Dykman asks each of her interviewees: What was Maryla’s goal in making it her life’s purpose to keep her story alive? “[T]he importance of remembering what happened so we don’t forget,” says one. Maryla understood that “…blind hatred can hit anyone, anywhere, any time,” says another. And another warns, “Malevolent politicians still exist. …. And even in the most democratic countries, we’re never shielded from a bad election.”

When Dykman follows up with the question as to what Maryla would think of the political upheavals of today, her subjects are in agreement that Maryla would be dismayed. One sadly notes, “She would have been appalled with the realization that their experience wasn’t enough to show people that peace is the only objective we should have.”

Throughout “Nana,” the horror of Maryla’s historic story accrues. It is a tragic, moving story to be sure, yet the strength of her testament is equaled by the quiet alarm sounded by those who praise her tenacity, while making the case for the imperative to stay ever vigilant, for it can, indeed, happen here.

Dykman’s mother Alice insists that, as the daughter of a survivor, she has an obligation to keep her mother’s story alive. She, like her mother, knows she must forego naiveté, for what happened in the past is always a possibility for the future. Dykman, the documentarian, has internalized this understanding and takes upon herself an inheritance laden with the responsibility to “perpetuate the memory.”

“Hitler versus Picasso and the Others” takes pains to emphasize the direct parallel between a culture’s artistic production and its understanding of itself as a culture, thereby arguing that Hitler was keenly aware that, for an entire culture to be usurped and erased, its art must be erased – or at the very least, hidden. Then, perhaps ironically, as both the war progressed and with it the looting, Hitler (the failed artist) and Hermann Goring (the swaggering aristocrat) – such steadfast allies – became rivals as collectors of some of Europe’s most important masterpieces.

The documentary touches on every aspect of the circuitous story of the Reich’s rape of Europa, using as a focal point the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition of 650 works by 112 modern (mostly German) artists – among them Klee, Emil Nolde, Otto Dix, Picasso, Mondrian, Chagal, Kandinsky – staged concurrently with the Great German Art Exhibition, which featured mediocre artists who derivatively modeled their work after realist genre paintings of the previous century, work more appropriate to propaganda posters than 20th century galleries.

On the one hand, we learn of the myriad dealers, curators and scholars who abetted the theft and, on the other, the collectors who fell victim to the Nazi regime, the protectors like the American so-called Monuments Men, and the dealers, curators and scholars who have devoted their lives to locating artworks and unmasking the people responsible for one of the saddest chapters in art history.

Toward the end of “Hitler versus Picasso,” one scholar notes his research has revealed just how much like ourselves were the regular citizens who made the Reich’s astonishingly vast pillaging possible. Where we wish to find a distinction, people to point to as reprehensible and different from us, we find people who are not that different at all.

It is hard not to see many current films, dramatic and documentary, through the lens of our current political moment and its reliance on scapegoating for its success. One of Dykman’s subjects observes, “Genocide is not just any kind of crime. It’s a crime where one is killed because of who he is, not because he does something or occupies a territory. Simply because he exists.”

“Nana” and “Hitler versus Picasso and the Others” remind us that the personal is political. Tino Servillo leaves us with a remark Picasso made in an interview long after the war (which finally gives us reason to understand the documentary’s title): “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes, if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? Far from it: at the same time he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.”

Serge Noel, who co-wrote Dykman’s grandmother Maryla’s 2000 memoir “Memorial des morts sans tombeau” with her, leaves us with this: “Within the deepest, blackest hole, humanity still exists; it can’t be destroyed. And we’ll never be able to destroy it. I think that was her message.” Let us hope Maryla was right.

“Nana” and “Hitler versus Picasso and the Others” were released in extremely limited markets. “Nana” and “Hitler versus Picasso and the Others” ware scheduled for DVD released on DVD in September. 

January 9, 2018


If there were one word to characterize this year’s selection of possible documentary Oscar nominees, it would have to be nihilism. From attacks on civilians in Raqqa and Aleppo to the greatest displacement of human populations across the globe in history to the abuse of justice in the Great Recession to the mendacity that plagues the once noble world of athletics to the biases of the health care system to that other monumentally entrenched injustice that is race in America to the ultimate and absolute nihilism that is global warming – documentaries sounded the clarion call. But if a documentary rattles the alarm and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

As much as Hollywood has embraced films based-on-a-true-story, much documentary film making has been relegated to cable and streaming services. In its preliminary round of voting, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selected 15 films of the 170 submissions for Best Documentary Academy Award, many produced by Amazon Studios, Netflix, HBO, et al. I do not know to what extent these 15 documentaries (much less the other 155) were accessible, even to coastal audiences, but the only one to have appeared in my theaters in 2017 was Al Gore’s climate change follow-up, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.”

On January 23, the Academy will announce the five that will contend for the Best Documentary Oscar. If you are interested in watching the 15 shortlisted films, here is a guide to where you can stream (most of) them.

Endurance: “City of Ghosts,” “Last Men in Aleppo,” “Human Flow” and “One of Us”

Two Syrian war-related films made the Academy’s shortlist. “City of Ghosts,” a production of A & E/Amazon Studios, is directed by Matthew Heinmann, whose 2015 “Cartel Land” earned an Oscar nomination in 2016. “City of Ghosts” follows media activist group RBSS, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. One of the few reliable sources of news information from the region, RBSS started in 2014 with 17 citizen journalists. They are ISIL targets, yet persist in getting their stories to fellow Syrian RBSS activists housed in undisclosed locations in Germany so that they might inform the world. (Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)

The 2016 British short documentary “The White Helmets,” directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, was awarded the Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the 2017 Academy Awards. The film follows the Syrian Civil Defense, a group of volunteer rescue workers who triangulate the targets of air strikes in order to get to victims trapped in the rubble as quickly as possible. The White Helmets are again the subject, here in Feras Fayyad’s “Last Men in Aleppo,” which premiered on PBS’s series POV. This time the focus is narrowed, primarily to a man we know only as Khaled, and it is heartbreaking to see his despair even in his role as a loving, gentle father. Writing in the New York Times, Glenn Kenny says, “this is an essential film, but it is also a terribly dispiriting one. … ‘Last Men in Aleppo’ is likely to make you almost ashamed of your comforts and leave you with a feeling of impotence.” All the more reason to make every effort to see it. (Available for streaming on Netflix.)

The Amazon Original Movie “Human Flow” is Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei’s sweeping examination of the human consequences of globalization. We are living through an unprecedented global refugee and migrant crisis. Ai takes us to the wandering lives of people in Israel and Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey, as well as destinations in Europe and North America. In her review for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis writes that Ai “wants to give you a sense of the scale of the crisis, its terrifying, world-swallowing immensity.” (Available soon for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “One of Us” is a Netflix Original documentary that follows three Hasidic Jews whose decision to leave their ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn community means stepping out from under a world of comprehensive control and into an alien world of isolation. Etty, who is trying to protect herself and her children from an abusive husband, finds that her husband’s attorneys can manipulate the law to his advantage and separate her from her children. She finds some solace in the support group Footsteps, which offers help and encouragement to individuals seeking to escape the suffocation of codified Orthodox constraints. A teenager, who has begun to realize he has been taught next to nothing in his Orthodox schools, cuts his hair and tentatively ventures into the world beyond his neighborhood. When he discovers Wikipedia, he describes it as “a gift from God.” Luzer, a struggling actor, has made it all the way to LA, but among the consequences of his departure have been a complete rupture with his family and estrangement from his children. We leave the three with the sense each will find a way to come to terms with independence. (Available for streaming on Netflix.)

Injustice: “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” “Icarus” and “Unrest”
Steve James’s “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” which originally aired as part of PBS’s Frontline series, chronicles the gross injustice Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. brought against the Sung family in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. For decades, Abacus, the Song’s federal savings bank in New York’s Chinatown, has served an immigrant community other financial institutions routinely turn away. James’s award-winning documentary work spans 30 years and includes titles familiar to documentary viewers. 1994’s “Hoop Dreams” looks at two Chicago high schoolers who dream of becoming pro players; 2002’s “Stevie” explores James’s own reunion with a boy he mentored through the Advocate Big Brother program; 2004’s seven-hour PBS series “The New Americans,” surveys the lives of several immigrants over the course of four years; 2006’s “The War Tapes” investigates the invasion of Iraq, filmed by the soldiers themselves; 2011’s “The Interrupters” follows individuals who try to stave off violence in Chicago communities; 2012’s “Head Games” delves into the devastating consequences of sports concussions; and 2014’s “Life Itself” presents a biographical homage to the late film critic Roger Ebert. “Abacus” brings the same sense of humanity and community that James shines on stories too often buried beneath the headlines. (Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.)

If you doubt Russia interfered in the 2016 election, you will learn that such meddling may have been small potatoes compared to its intricately designed athletic doping cover-up in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Bryan Fogel is a playwright who also happens to be an avid amateur cyclist. His first run at the Haute Route, the Tour de France of the amateur cycling world, coincided with the breaking story of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. With “Icarus,” Fogel chronicles his decision to investigate doping using himself as his subject. What starts as a fairly routine Morgan Spurlock-esque immersion story takes a cloak and dagger turn when Fogel is put in contact with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian chemist who ran his country’s accredited anti-doping operation. Rodchenkov, a charmingly charismatic fellow, and Fogel forge an abiding friendship, and in the process, Rodchenkov risks everything to blow the lid off Russia’s comprehensive, state-sanctioned conspiracy. The epitaph that opens “Icarus” is attributed to George Orwell: “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Once Rodchenkov arrives in the United States, with a well-worn copy of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the film’s structure takes on an eerie Orwellian progression. (Available for streaming on Netflix.)

In 2011, after a high fever, Jennifer Brea fell victim to myalgic encephalomyelitis, more commonly referred to as chronic fatigue syndrome. The disease is characterized by, among other symptoms, joint and muscle pain, digestive issues, extreme light and noise sensitivity and cognitive problems. “Unrest” is Brea’s video diary of her ensuing battle with the disease and of the struggles of other sufferers she has met online. Yet a subtext emerges, as the narrative unfolds, about the biases that inform medical practice. In part its unfortunate nomenclature (chronic fatigue) has made it too easy for the general public and the medical community alike to write patients off as delusional, lazy or both. Though the disease afflicts almost twice as many people as multiple sclerosis, dollars devoted to research are a tiny fraction of those spent on MS and on other chronic afflictions. Anyone touched by this maddeningly elusive disease should be gladdened by Brea’s courage in telling her unvarnished story. (Available for streaming through purchase only on Amazon Prime Video.)

Race: “LA 92” and “Strong Island”

If you are of a certain age, middle-aged at least, you can probably remember the events of the spring of 1992. An all-white jury found two of the four officers indicted for use of excessive force in the beating of Rodney King guilty. They both were sentenced to 30 months in prison. The other two officers were exonerated. The day the verdicts were handed down, April 29, rioting began in the streets of Los Angeles. Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s “LA 92,” which premiered on the National Geographic Channel, bookends its narrative with the 1965 Watts riots, and tells the story of the events of 1992 through archival footage, as raw today as it was 25 years ago. (Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)

Another story from 1992, and one with which you are likely unfamiliar, is more personal. That same spring, on April 7, 24-year-old William Ford Jr., an unarmed black man, was killed by 19-year-old Mark Reilly, a white auto mechanic. Allegedly, in the course of a dispute over Ford’s car’s repair, Reilly insulted Ford’s mother. When confronted, Reilly pulled out a shot gun. The grand jury handed over a “No True Bill,” a legal procedure to dismiss charges against a defendant when the panelists believe there is insufficient evidence to bring charges. Yance Ford, now a transgender man, was William’s younger sister, and “Strong Island,” 10 years in the making, is his meditation on what happened that night and the repercussions the event has had on the family dynamic in the ensuing years. “Strong Island” relates an intensely personal story that examines what is known of objective facts while mining the emotional currents that shape those facts, and bravely confronts complex questions of guilt and innocence. (Available for streaming on Netflix.)

Climate: “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” and “Chasing Coral”

If Al Gore sounds frustrated in “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” can you blame him? The documentary, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, is, as its title spells out, a sequel to 2016’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” which was a rather wonkish approach to laying out the threat of global warming. That is a statement, not a criticism, because if in-your-face activism, time-lapse photography, or Werner Herzog’s suicidal penguin (“Encounters at the End of the World,” 2007) can’t make you get it, maybe a wonky method will. There are moments in “Sequel” when Gore loses his wonkish cool. Again, can you blame him? (Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)

In 2012, documentarian Jeff Orlowski released “Chasing Ice.” The film follows James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey project, which, in 2007, began monitoring 24 of the world’s largest glaciers as they melted before the team’s very eyes. In “Chasing Coral,” a Netflix Original documentary, Orlowski teams up with Richard Vevers, CEO of The Ocean Agency, which the former advertising professional founded after something of a midlife crisis. He reasoned that the fact that most of us do not see below the ocean’s surface is one of its liabilities, and that mediating on its behalf would be a superior life purpose to advocating for 3-ply toilet paper. Every player in this riveting film is passionate, from Ruth Gates, Director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology; to Dr. C. Mark Eakin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who directs Coral Reef Watch; to Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director of the Global Change Institute and Professor of Marine Science at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia; among many others. But the most magnetic is Zackery Rago, a long-time aquarist and scuba diver with View Into the Blue, a tech company that manufactures underwater camera systems and monitoring instruments. Zack’s love for coral is palpable on the screen, and when he mourns its loss, you would have to be made of stone not to mourn it, too. (Available for streaming on Netflix.)

On a Happier Note: “Long Strange Trip,” “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library,” “Faces Places” and “Jane”

The six-part documentary about the Grateful Dead, “Long Strange Trip,” is, indeed, long. It feels as though director Amir Bar-Lev has ferreted out every reel, every snippet, every snap ever taken of the band, which, if you are a diehard dead-head might interest you. For this viewer, however, a big fan of rock documentaries and concert films, it was a long slog. Use your streaming services to take a more fruitful trip down memory lane with some of the masterworks of the genre – D. A. Pennebaker (“Don’t Look Back,” “Monterey Pop” and “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”); Jim Jarmusch (“Year of the Horse”); Michael Wadleigh (“Woodstock”); or Martin Scorsese ("The Last Waltz”); among many other great rock documentaries. (Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)

These last three I was unable to screen:

“Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” sounds like a documentary dream come true. For starters, it is directed by the great Frederick Wiseman, who has worked in the form since the 1960s, covering scores of subjects. Writing about Wiseman’s 2014 “National Gallery” for, Glenn Kenny remarks, “It simply won’t do to call [him] a documentarian. Even film critics and film lovers who normally aren’t all that actively/avidly enthusiastic about the documentary feature as a form…have to give it up for Wiseman.” What Wiseman documents in “Ex Libris” is an institution invented for books at a time when the book may be destined, if not to obsolescence, at least to obscurity. (Unavailable at this time.)

Agnes Varda, now 89 years old and one of the leading figures of the French New Wave, and 33-year-old French photographer and muralist JR co-directed “Faces Places.” Varda and JR hit the road in JR’s photo truck. Tooling through the French countryside, they encounter locals and listen to their stories. JR produces larger-than-life portraits that he displays on houses, barns, storefronts and trains, while Varda documents their adventure. (Unavailable at this time.)

When Jane Goodall, at age 26, first ventured into the forest to study chimpanzees, I was seven, and by the time National Geographic’s 1965 documentary “Jane Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees,” narrated by Orson Welles, came out, I was 12, so I feel I have grown up knowing Goodall most of my life. That film came from footage shot by wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick, who would later become Goodall’s first husband. According to Ben Kenigsberg’s review for the New York Times, National Geographic Studios’ new film “Jane,” directed by Brett Morgen, “draws on more than 100 rediscovered hours from National Geographic’s archives. The abundant raw material allows Mr. Morgen to construct the impression of a complete narrative arc,” Kenigsberg continues, “and to show the tedious work of gaining the trust of the chimps and collecting data in fast forward, conveying the excitement of scientific discovery with adventure-movie momentum.” (Available for Amazon Prime Video purchase on January 23, 2018, and available now for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, but only with Fire TV or Fire TV Stick.)

August 24, 2017


If you missed the movingly sweet indie film “Brigsby Bear,” you are not alone. My theater cancelled their scheduled weekend showings after a negligible audience for its opening Friday, though they did allow it a 4:00 p.m. showing the following Monday and Wednesday afternoons before sending it on its way.

That’s a real shame because Kyle Mooney (who also stars) and Kevin Costello’s screenplay, directed by Dave McCary, is one of the most charming little gems to come along in a while. Mooney and McCary, along with Beck Bennett and Nick Rutherford, came together in 2007 to form the sketch comedy group, Good Neighbor, and since 2013, Mooney has been a cast member of “Saturday Night Live” where McCary works as a segment director. That sounds like a lot of extraneous information, but if it isn’t clear to you as you watch just what a labor of friendship and ensemble work “Brigsby Bear” is, the filmmakers make it clear in the credits, where, in addition to a cast and crew who wore multiple hats, a slew of “Utah Volunteers” are thanked for their contributions.

The premise of “Brigsby Bear” is, on its surface, a grim one. James was abducted as an infant, and has lived his 20-something years in an underground bunker with his abductor parents, Ted and April Mitchum (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams). Throughout his life, each week like clockwork, a new episode of a children’s show called “Brigsby Bear” arrives on video cassette.

“Brigsby Bear” the film risks comparisons with Peter Weir’s 1998 “The Truman Show” but the films differ in important respects. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) has been abducted by a faceless corporation. James’s abductors, despite the heinousness of their crime, obviously dote on their ward. Whereas Truman is the unwitting star of 24-7 reality show for an audience of voyeurs, “Brigsby Bear” the show is initially an educational tool for James, ala Sesame Street, with episodes designed to teach math or spelling or geography or good manners. While “The Truman Show” is about a kind of soul-sucking corporate cynicism, not a single frame of “Brigsby Bear” betrays an air of world-weariness or disenchantment.

As James has grown over the years, so “Brigsby Bear” the show and its iconography and mythological narrative have grown, too, becoming more nuanced and complex. Its plot twists have evolved and its secret vocabulary has flourished. James can recite by heart the almost 1,000 episodes better than the most hardcore “Rocky Horror Picture Show” fan. His room is a shrine to Brigsby with every variety of fandom collateral possible. Aside from the Mitchum’s, whom he will later describe as pretty boring, James’s reality – imaginary and literal – is the universe of “Brigsby Bear.”

One night, James puts on his gas mask – to protect from an atmosphere he has been taught is toxic – so he can sneak out and sit on top of the bunker entrance. As he gazes out at the imaginary creatures with which Ted has populated the bunker entrance, a fleet of police cars comes racing toward him lights flashing lights, sirens screaming -- sights and sounds he has never before seen nor heard. Suddenly, he is abducted back into the real world.

Mooney plays James as an arrested, overly excitable ten-year-old, at times seemingly somewhere on the autism spectrum. A sensitive Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) tries to explain the circumstances to the bewildered James. When James is united with his birth parents, Greg and Louise Pope (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), they try to create something like normalcy, but as well-meaning as those efforts are, they can sometimes seem downright cruel through James’s eyes. To complicate things further, Greg and Louise have a daughter (Ryan Simpkins) – a teenager resentful at losing standing as an only child and embarrassed by a weirdo who talks about nothing but an imaginary character while day after day donning a Brigsby T-shirt.

Just as it begins to seem to Greg and Louise – as it does to us – that the attempt to integrate James – despite everyone’s best efforts and James’s intrinsic good nature – is not going to turn out well, we sense that James is taking in more than the adults are giving him credit for and something happens. First, Greg takes James to a movie, the first time he has ever seen anything projected on the big screen. Second, sister Aubrey grudgingly lets James tag along to a party she’s going to with a girlfriend. Their friend Spence (an endearing Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) is there and is the first person to genuinely and intuitively engage with James. After seeing the movie, James had asked his father, who is the person who makes movies? His father explains that many people make movies, not just one. For James the answer is revelatory. If lots of people make movies, he can make a movie, and when it turns out Spence is an amateur filmmaker of sorts, James sets out to continue the story of Brigsby Bear.

Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Spence and Kyle Mooney as James in "Brigsby Bear"
“Brigsby Bear” is more than a self-reflexive movie, more than a movie about making a movie. It is more than paean to the magic of movies. It is a hymn to the transcendent power of creativity, especially that pure creative energy of childhood imagination. Brigsby Bear’s nemesis is a huge sun, a sun that looks like nothing so much as the pioneering filmmaker George Méliès’s iconic Man in the Moon in his 1902 “A Trip to the Moon” – we might call him the Man in the Sun, though in the Brigsby world he is Sun Snatcher. Brigsby, looking like a cross between a teddy bear and a 1960s astronaut, does not himself possess super powers – excepting his kindness, bravery and wisdom – but the objects he wields have special properties, and the saga of Brigsby and his world rivals the creations of a J. R. R. Tolkien or J. K. Rowling.

This pitiable attempt at a synopsis falls completely flat in the face of a film that is an unbridled celebration of creation, collaboration, friendship, love and forgiveness. Quite simply, “Brigsby Bear” is the tale of an unworldly young man come to earth who offers the possibility of redemption to all who open their hearts to him. Yes, this little treasure didn’t make it to the multiplex, but if the DVD is released in time, put enough by to stuff every stocking on your holiday list.

In theaters in limited release.
No official release date yet for DVD and/or Blu-ray. Based on the average time between opening day and home entertainment releases, Movie Insider’s unofficial estimate is around December 2017.


August 22, 2017


“Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.” Elvis Presley

If there are antidotes to Charlottesville, one may be “Step,” the new documentary from Amanda Lipitz that won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best Feature at the 2017 AFI Docs festival. The film tells the remarkable story of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW). The school opened its doors to sixth graders in 2009. In the spring of 2016, its inaugural class was preparing to graduate.

 “Step” follows three young women as they train on the step team, known as the Lethal Ladies, with the goal of winning an extramural competition, and as they pursue their academic studies with the goal of securing college acceptance. The former objective is led by dedicated coaches, the latter by the stalwart support of the Upper School Principal and the commitment of one of the school’s counselors, Paula Dofat.

“Step” focuses on Blessin Giraldo, whose mother suffers almost crippling depression; Cori Grainger, the class valedictorian whose mother has recently remarried; and Tayla Solomon, who struggles with her grades even as her demanding corrections officer mother acts not only as her daughter’s booster, but the entire step teams’.  All of the girls’ parents appear to be genuinely loving, but in the face of students whose academic struggles are exacerbated by precarious economic circumstances, the complexities of the college applications process, and the seemingly insurmountable challenge of financial aid, it is the school’s principal, coaches and counselors who emerge as the heroes of the story.

Their indefatigable efforts on the girls’ behalf can seem herculean at times. They refuse excuses and self-pity yet show unlimited depths of compassion and tough love to see their charges through to BLSYW’s mission: that each and every graduate will win college admission, a goal this inaugural BLSYW graduating class has attained. A commencement speaker reminds them that this achievement is not shared by most schools in the United States.

Blessin, despite being the step team’s original organizer, is the most challenged by the demands of discipline, both on the team and in the classroom. Ms. Dofat, speaking to admissions representatives from a bridge school program on Blessin’s behalf, becomes visibly emotional and apologizes. “I’m sorry,” she says wiping away tears. “This is so unprofessional.” One can’t blame her – so much of her professional life and emotional being are wrapped up in the lives and potential of the girls.

“Step” could be faulted for coming off as a feel-good documentary, but there is always an open spot in my heart for documentaries and based-on-a-true-story accounts about the power of education and the arts to shape young people for the good. Indeed, as a life-long educator, it has been my experience that when we raise the bar and demand excellence, not all but most young people rise to the challenge. 

In “The Great Debaters” (2007) Denzel Washington resurrected the story of Melvin B. Tolson who led the debate team of the historically black Wiley College to victory in the 1930s. Katie Dellamoggiore’s 2012 “Brooklyn Castle” trained its lens on Intermediate School 318, an inner-city public school in Brooklyn, New York, where an after-school chess program produced the top junior high school chess team in the country and the first middle school team to win the United States Chess Federation's national high school championship.

Two 2015 films focused on schools with predominantly Latino students. For champions of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) model that is being so forcefully advanced these days, Sean McNamara’s uplifting “Spare Parts” is a dramatic film based on Oscar Vasquez, the Carl Hayden High School teacher who steered the engineering club in Phoenix, Arizona, to win first place over M.I.T. in the 2004 Marine Advanced Technology Education Center remotely operated vehicle competition. For champions of sport, Niki Caro’s “McFarland, USA” is also a dramatic film based on McFarland High School Coach Jim White and the Latino cross country team he created from scratch and trained to win the 1987 California state championship.

My favorites are documentaries that focus on the arts, like “Step” and Amy Sewell’s 2005 “Mad Hot Ballroom” about a ballroom dance program in the New York City public school system for fifth graders in the Tribeca, Bensonhurst and Washington Heights neighborhoods that culminates in a city-wide competition.

The Baltimore Leadership School was established in partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools, and all of these examples demonstrate the equalizing – and transformative – effects public education can have when its possibilities are embraced by bold teachers and students committed to something larger than themselves. As we face the demolition of public education in the United States, films like these are powerful reminders of what it is we are in the process of giving up.

In select theaters
On DVD and Blu-Ray December 2017

August 9, 2017


What is time but loss? Loss of youth, of companionship. The process of becoming and of declining. David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” is about time and loss and opens with an epigram, the first line of Virginia Woolf’s story “A Haunted House”: “Whatever hour you woke up there was another door shutting.” Woolf’s story might better be described as a prose poem. At 1,949 words, it does not tell a story as much as sketch an atmosphere, and you – the reader, the necessary reader of the tale – are set within the narrative from that first sentence. Then, “From room to room they went…a ghostly couple.”

“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”

But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself …. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?”

Narrator and reader blur, and “us” (“But it wasn’t that you woke us.”), the narrator and her husband we are to assume, cohabit with the ghostly couple in their house, ghosts who “seek their joy,” “the Treasure” buried in the room – a treasure, we quickly realize, that is not any material thing but the memory and the love they made together in the house “hundreds of years ago.”

Casey Affleck as C. Photo Credit: Bret Curry. Courtesy of A24
Like “A Haunted House,” “A Ghost Story” is and is not a ghost story and like Woolf's tale, is ultimately a love story. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play M and C, a couple living in a house somewhere. He wants to stay because he feels a sense of the history they have together there. She wants to move, and his unwillingness to discuss their future weighs on their relationship. Then he dies in an auto accident and is on a table in a morgue. The camera frames the viewing room and his body under the sheet, until, after she sees him for the final time and departs, he rises slowly from the table. The camera sits, not for seconds but for minutes.

Lowery renders the ghost, not as ectoplasm or vortex or translucent dismembered head, but reduced to a child’s Halloween costume – a mere sheet with cutouts for the eyes. The sheeted ghost is fitting for a deceptively simple plot: A man dies and his ghost has nowhere to go but home. In fact, the austerity of Lowery’s cinematic effects contributes, like Woolf’s elusive syntax and carefully measured vocabulary, to a narrative arc that moves from lyrical to symphonic in a mere 92 minutes. Lowery employs ghost story tropes – tracking shots down empty hallways; a creaking door; buzzing, flickering lights; an unexpected crash or two – but nothing that might cause fright.

The cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo has an almost monochromatic feel in the interior shots, but when the story ventures out of doors, the landscapes are rich and vast. Lowery asked that Daniel Hart’s haunting original score draw inspiration from Woolf’s story, and the concluding piece “Safe, Safe, Safe” echoes the sibilance and the comfort that the line imparts to Woolf’s tale. Again and again, the score incorporates the Picardy third – raising the third of an expected minor triad by a semitone to create a major triad resolution. This produces an effect of joyousness when our expectation is melancholy. Not surprisingly, then, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” will figure into the thematic concerns of the film, as well.

“A Ghost Story” is structured in juxtapositions of montage sequences and static shots. In the era of the fast-cut, Lowery is not afraid for the camera to do nothing but record. An establishing medium long shot becomes the static point of view for an entire scene. Not only does this challenge our conventional contemporary movie-going experience, the approach imposes the experience of time on us. For many, movies are a means of escape, and escapism is to be distracted from the experience of time. That terrible, almost tragic, expression about killing time expresses a desire to kill something so dearly precious and limited to each of us. Lowery seeks, instead, to intensify the experience of time, and then, by contrast, move us through a series of montages that communicate the passage of days, then years, then centuries.

It is impossible not to see in Lowery’s atmospheric visual style and melancholic lyricism an unmistakable homage to Terrence Malick. Some critics argued this made his 2013 feature debut “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which he also wrote and directed and which also stars Mara and Affleck, merely derivative and uninspired, but there was something brewing in it that augered more. In “A Ghost Story,” Lowery has rendered a transporting meditation on time and human experience, and though Malik’s influence is evident, Lowery explores similar thematic elements with an elegant economy of emotion and duration in stark contrast to Malik’s excesses witnessed in all their grandeur in the 2011, intensely autobiographical “Tree of Life.”

Beginning with Malick in the 1970s, a certain subset of directors emerged from Texas – including Julian Schnabel and Richard Linklater – a subset that Lowery with “A Ghost Story” may be destined to join. Malick was born in Illinois in 1943 but attended St. Stephen’s Episcopal boarding school in Austin, Texas, and most of his films exude a sense isolation experienced in the soft light of the Texas Plains. Brooklyn-born (1951) transplant to Brownsville, Texas, the New York-based painter Julian Schnabel’s 2007 “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a profound meditation on the capacity of loss to heighten experience and on the mind’s ability to make time non-linear. His new cinematic project “At Eternity’s Gate,” about Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) and his time in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, Schnabel describes as “…a film about painting and a painter, and their relationship to infinity.”

Richard Linklater was born in Houston, Texas, in 1960, and the Linklater films that interest me most are those that take on issues of time and our place in it: the animated “Waking Life” (2001), which questions the nature of reality, consciousness, free will and existence itself; the “Before” trilogy filmed over the course of 18 years – “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Before Sunset” (2004), and “Before Midnight” (2013); and the logical – though radical – extension of the trilogy concept, 2014’s “Boyhood” filmed over the course  of 11 years. This approach – the examination of time through real time – is Linklater’s signature method, and one wonders where it might take him next.

The 36-year-old Lowery hails from Texas, too. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the family moved to Irving, Texas when Lowery was seven. Whether as an effect of the landscape of the southernmost region of the Great Plains, the proximity to the Atlantic Gulf or the sheer size of the state, Malick, Schnabel, Linklater – and now Lowery – share an interest in our experience of time – the fact that we are trapped in it while possessed of the inventiveness, if not to transcend it, at least to reimagine it. Taking very different approaches, each director contemplates the existential experience of time and its companion, loss.

Eternity is both tragic and majestically mysterious. Not long after our ghost has returned to his house, he goes to a window that looks out onto the window of the house next door where he sees a similarly sheeted ghost inside. The two ghosts exchange wordless hellos, understanding each other telepathically. The neighbor ghost explains that she’s waiting for someone. Our ghost asks, “Who?” “I don’t remember,” she replies.

Casey Affleck as C. Photo Credit: Bret Curry. Courtesy of A24
In the conclusion to his review of “A Ghost Story” for the New Yorker, Anthony Lane describes the point after the two now empty, decrepit houses are bulldozed as “the saddest detail of all”: The two ghosts stand amidst their respective rubble, and the neighbor ghost says (whom I refer to above as “she”), “‘I don’t think they’re coming.’ At this precise instant, he folds—just crumples and drops, leaving nothing but a wrinkled sheet on the ground. The waiting was all he had. I must have watched special effects worth hundreds of millions of dollars this year, but nothing has rent the heart as much as this plain low-budget collapse, and it makes you wonder: Was that a soul in Purgatory, and is he now at peace? Or do the dead themselves pass on, living here until their hopeless cause expires, and dying thus around us every day?”

I agree with Lane about the intensity of this moment sans any CGI ostentation, but I did not find it altogether sad. Rather, I read this scene as one of hope. Neither that some greater force condemns us to a Purgatory from which we are released after a designated time nor that we die a second literal kind of death. Might there be hope in choice, in our own agency to give ourselves up to a cycle that is universal and eternal?

In an early scene, M explains to C that, as she has moved from house to house through life, she leaves a tiny note hidden in each – something it is in our human nature to do – leave a piece of ourselves behind, something that says “I was here.” This theme, the desire to leave our mark, circles through “A Ghost Story,” and in that regard, the film is also a story about art – and what is art but an expression of love. Perhaps it is only great artists who leave a mark with any meaningful impact, but we all make some gesture, even if it’s just a tiny slip of paper that carries our handwriting pushed into a crack in the woodwork by which we hope to be remembered. Yet in time, even memory will be lost. We will no longer remember those we’ve loved and lost. But time will go inexorably on – in its grandeur and its indifference.

“A Ghost Story”
In select theaters.

DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix and Redbox release date October 3, 2017.


Though there are many good biopics and films based-on-a-true-story (and many bad ones), I have long maintained that it is almost impossible to make a great one. Some have transcended. Alan Pakula’s  1976 “All the President’s Men,” David Lynch’s 1980 “Elephant Man,” Mike Nichols’s 1983 “Silkwood,” Milos Foreman’s 1984 “Amadeus,” Jim Sheridan’s 1989 “My Left Foot,” Martin Scorsese’s 1990 “GoodFellas,” Roman Polanski’s 2002 “The Pianist,” Terry George’s 2004 “Hotel Rwanda,” Sean Penn’s 2007 “Into the Wild,” Julian Schnabel's 2007 "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Danny Boyle’s 2010 “127 Hours” come to mind. Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” which opened last week, is another. Considering the glut of based-on-a-true-story films these days, however, the chance that one will stand out in the crowd is rare.

The problem is one of artistic license, which writers (take Shakespeare’s history plays, examples par excellence) and filmmakers used to have until 1989, the year Oliver Stone was slammed for “Born on the Fourth of July.” The film initially met with a warm critical reception, but Diana West’s 1990 article for The Washington Times, “Does ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ Lie?,” was typical of the ensuing onslaught. Based on the autobiography by Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stone, “Born on the Fourth of July” encountered a barrage of criticism for everything from collapsing multiple characters into one or inventing characters altogether to outright falsifying the record. More recently, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” (2014) faced similar reproofs. “Selma” confronted a further challenge in that, since it was not based on autobiography, the personal story had to be conjectured while the overarching historical narrative was expected to be accurate.

Since 1990, film makers have deployed variously worded disclaimers to avoid a torrent of accusations of inaccuracy. Closing credits end with statements along the lines of: "This story is based on actual events. Some incidents, characters and timelines have been altered for dramatic purposes. Certain characters may be composites or fictitious."

Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis in "Maudie"
Of the protagonists in the films singled out above, none is a personality with whom we share an intimate, albeit public, familiarity. The better we know the public figure, the more iconic the personality, the more artistic license becomes proportionally constrained. Franklin Schaffer’s 1970 “Patton,” Michael Apted’s 1980 “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (Loretta Lynn), Richard Attenborough’s 1982 “Gandhi,” Julie Taymor’s 2002 “Frida” (Frida Kahlo), Taylor Hackford’s 2004 “Ray” (Ray Charles), Bennett Miller’s 2004 “Capote,” James Mangold’s 2005 “Walk the Line (Johnny Cash), Olivier Dahan’s 2007 “La Vie en Rose” (Edith Piaf), Gus Van Sant’s 2008 “Milk” (Harvey Milk), Steven Spielberg’s 2012 “Lincoln,” James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything” (Stephen Hawking), Danny Boyle’s 2015 “Steve Jobs” – superior films all and each received – deserved – critical acclaim. One wonders, however, to what degree one’s own and the critics’ enthusiasms are based primarily on the degree to which the starring performers pass as the actual historic personage. Honestly, have you ever seen a satisfactory portrayal of JFK? (Todd Haynes’s 2007 “I’m Not There,” in which Bob Dylan is portrayed by a myriad of actors and actresses, is a notable – and admirably creative – exception to this rule.)

All that by way of introduction to Aisling Walsh’s film “Maudie.” The Irish director is best known in Britain for her BAFTA TV Award-nominated work on the two-part miniseries adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Man Booker Prize-nominated novel “Fingersmith” (available on Netflix DVD), also starring Sally Hawkins.

Though based-on-a-true-story, “Maudie” follows the largely imagined life of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis. The bare bones of Maud’s story are just that – bare. Born in 1903 to John and Agnes Dowley in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Maud was diagnosed early on with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Her mother taught her to draw Christmas cards to sell. John died in 1935, Agnes in 1937. When her brother sold the family house, Maud was sent to live with her aunt in nearby Digby. There she met Everett Lewis, an itinerant fishmonger whom she married shortly thereafter in 1938. He bought Maud her first artist’s brushes and paint. They reportedly shared a devoted relationship, living in Everett’s nine by ten and a half foot house in Marshalltown, from which Maud sold paintings that gained notoriety in the 1960s. She died in 1970; Everett lived until 1979.

Sherry White wrote the screenplay for "Maudie," and in an interview for the Halifax Chronicle Herald (February 26, 2015) says she “became frustrated when [Maud’s] story seemed like a biopic.” White explains that “[I]t was feeling like a movie of the week. Eventually, I focused on the love story…. …. I wanted to believe it was a love story and they were two outsiders who found each other.” Walsh and White benefited from a dearth of biographical information, detail that might otherwise shackle their narrative. They were free to construct a story for Maud and Everett to inhabit as characters, and they took full advantage of dramatic license to create a compelling narrative with a rich backstory for Maud that informs the middle-aged character we meet onscreen. White wanted Maud to be a “character who is determined to have a life of her own, determined to find happiness despite the fact life is challenging for her and beats her down. She’s infectious in how she sees [the positive in] the world….”

Sally Hawkins plays Maud, Ethan Hawke plays Everett and, as the film dictates, they should be understood as characters – not as literal incarnations of actual people. Much of the power of Hawkins’s performance derives from the fact that she refuses to play Maud as a naïf. Maud is quiet yet headstrong, demurring yet shrewd. She has had the misfortune to grow up with a physical infirmity that others have misattributed as intellectually deficiency. The screenplay depicts Everett as an illiterate loner, and Hawke rises to the challenge of maintaining a coarse, churlish exterior while revealing a man capable – albeit cautiously and despite an occasional sadistic outburst – of devotion and genuine affection.

Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins as Everett and Maud Lewis in "Maudie"
Ever the keen observer, when it becomes apparent to her that Everett does not always keep track of his fish deliveries, Maud offers a system for keeping track without suggesting any failing on Everett’s part. In response to Everett’s reluctance to marry (an attitude apparently not shared by the real-life Everett), Maud signs her paintings “Maud Lewis” well before they tie the knot. She persists, and in his own way, he does, too.

White says, “You don’t normally see love stories about characters who are not the typical beautiful people.” This is so true, especially of American cinema, and one of the reasons foreign films are often so refreshing, absent as they sometimes are of overly pretty people. It took an Irish director, a Canadian writer, and an English actress to shape in “Maudie,” not an eccentric caricature, but an indelible portrait of endurance and generosity of spirit.

In selected theaters.
Home Entertainment Unofficial Release Dates:
Digital/On Demand (VOD) September 2017

DVD/Blu-Ray October 2017